Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Arisa White, author of You're The Most Beautiful Thing That Happened, on Writing Habits

I recently read an interview on Rumpus with fiction writer Laurie Foos, and when asked about her writing habits, part of her response was “I wish more writers would be willing to talk about the not-writing periods.”

In reflection, I realized that, technically, I am always writing. Even if it’s just a line I eked out while cooking dinner. Or images I jot down while watching Judge Judy or some magnificent thought comes to me during a Netflix binge. So I had to feel my way through the various kinds of writing I do.

When I am Writing, it is from an idea that came to me that I now get to nurture into something. I have been pulled in by the unconscious and I’m going. I’m on the journey—it’s me and this thing and I’m free to express. Something about that Writing feels private and intimate, it isn’t concerned with audience or how it sounds or if it’s understood. It is shaping itself into form and I’m being fulfilled deep down from a joyful source. This Writing makes me feel connected, like I took root, plugged in and now I’m energized.

Lately, I’ve been in what I would define as a not-writing period. With managing my teaching load, a gig to write a children’s book in verse, this is the not-writing where my writerly output is satisfying the needs of someone or something else that has little do with my inner creative desires. And this isn’t a “good” or “bad” thing; it is what is.

For instance, the children’s book I’m co-writing meets a desire of mine. I’ve wanted to try my hands writing for children. This particular project requires research on the life of Biddy Mason, who was born a slave in Georgia, petitioned for her freedom in California, and later became a wealthy landowner in Los Angeles. Much wasn’t written about her earlier life as a slave, and writing verse for a lower 4th grade reading level has presented hair-pulling challenges. These rhetorical restraints force me to employ a whole other set of skills that I don’t often use. I’m encountering a new writing persona of mine, and I’m self-conscious about her presence, unsure how she functions, fear that she will fail. The risks involved don’t make writing a safe and free space. In this case, the writing is public, the content is based on a historical figure, there is an intended audience and the writing must meet their needs.

In these moments when I’m going and going, and not much time for myself, watching movies is like a vacation. It’s how I bring pleasure back into my life—the indulgence in a good movie, or drama series, with my favorite bag of chips and the company of my wife is restorative. This also goes for making a meal, after picking out the ingredients in the market, or hanging out with friends, dissecting the word play on Battle Rap. The not-doing makes it possible to do later. Most important, the not-doing allows you space to see yourself more clearly.

Revision is another one of my pleasures during my not-writing periods. To return to pieces that I once thought were blah—my current feeling toward the new stuff I’m writing—with a pair of fresh eyes, I better see its potential and can work my craft to bring about it’s life. Revision quiets the inner critic who pesters me about writing more and hates on the quality of what I do produce. Revision says to that doubting, self-conscious self, that I, the writer will not abandon you.

During this shift in my relationship to time, I’m wondering how to access that “in-the-pocket” feeling I get when I’m with my writing, uninterrupted. How can it happen on the Bart ride from Lake Merritt to Daly City? From Oakland to Sunnyvale? For an eight-hour day? Then there is the practice of returning to a piece each time—how to start again and again? This habit of seeing myself has been invaluable. Noticing my behaviors, my responses and seeing how my series of actions contribute to what I put forth in the world, gets me comfortable with the writer I need to be when I can’t retreat.

I’m better at letting it be. Not stressing out on what I should, could or would be doing if…. Realizing that each of these different kinds of writing is keeping me in shape. I’m challenged to integrate my poetic voice in my prose, dramatic writing, essays, because without it, my writing lacks truth. It doesn’t have a center and the primary sound from which my voice builds. This broadens my definition of poet and acclimates me to knowing my voice in other ways so its timbers do not intimidate me.

About the Book
Angular, smart, and fearless, Arisa White’s newest collection takes its titles from words used internationally as hate speech against gays and lesbians, reworking, re-envisioning, and re-embodying language as a conduit for art, love, and understanding. “To live freely, observantly as a politically astute, sensually perceptive Queer Black woman is to be risk taker, at risk, a perceived danger to others and even dangerous to/as oneself,” writes poet Tracie Morris. “White’s attentive word substitutions and range of organized forms, lithe anecdotes, and disturbed resonances put us in the middle of living a realized, intelligent life of the senses.” You’re the Most Beautiful Thing That Happened works through intersectional encounters with gender, identity, and human barbarism, landing deftly and defiantly in beauty.

Early Praise
This is what I’m talking about. The fierce truth, the gorgeous loneliness, the late-night bravery and the tender, tender heart. It’s the poetry of Arisa White and it’s divine in every sense. Let’s all talk about it.” – Daniel Handler, Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events

“Swiss army knives, scuttling crabs, pinball machines, HIV/AIDS, the West Side Highway, daisy breasts, racial slurs, kitchen sink scorch marks, and mustangs running through veins: through all the kaleidescoping nouns of White’s new collection, the starring roles are played by lust and roving hands and lovers and beloveds. These poems are nearly unblurbable: delicate yet tough, visceral and cerebral, innocent yet experienced, loving and longing, grotesque and hopeful: “…I drag our placenta behind us. Together/ can be restored with a blink.” Come for the lyrical mastery, stay for the god-level Eros. The third full-length collection by one of America’s most promising poets, You’re the Most Beautiful Thing That Happened is required reading for anyone who’s ever loved, been loved, or forgotten how.” – Amy King, The Missing Museum

“Arisa White’s You’re the Most Beautiful Thing That Happened is a book whose true engine is love, and whose every poem, in all kinds of ways, reaches toward love. That in itself is astonishing, and to be praised. But add the formal playfulness, the rich music, the storytelling, and, perhaps especially, the sense of justice and humanity, and you’ll realize you’re holding a truly beautiful book in your hands.” – Ross Gay, Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude

“Arisa White sharpens her words against this unpredictable world we live in, with the poems in You’re the Most Beautiful Thing That Happened. In verse that is exhilarating and unexpected, White writes of race, of women loving women, of these all too human bodies we wear, of cities, of landscape. You’re the Most Beautiful Thing That Happened is an assured and memorable book of poetry, one that provokes thought as much as it provokes a depth of feeling.” – Roxane Gay, Bad Feminist

“Whether remembering a neglected friend or experiencing a sensual touch, Arisa White’s poems will take your breath away. They nestle into rich language then burst up and out like birds taking flight; so close you feel their heat and wings inside you. She traverses many landscapes, both physical and emotional, sometimes evoking a melancholy longing, at other times an eager passion. In either case, these are exquisite, finely crafted poems that are irresistible.” – Jewelle Gomez, The Gilda Stories: Expanded 25th Anniversary Edition

“Arisa White’s You’re the Most Beautiful Thing That Happened makes us sweat, reflect, cry, and discover. With a deft utilization of prose poetry, lyric essay, and verse, White delivers a guide to learning our freedoms. You will probably have to reconfigure your definition of beauty after you read this book.” – Willie Perdomo, The Essential Hits of Shorty Bon Bon

“There are not enough books like or near Arisa White’s new collection, You’re the Most Beautiful Thing That Happened, addressing what it is to be young, Lesbian and Queer and Black and tender and unapologetic and erotic. In these poems, I hear Pat Parker’s wit and challenge, and the insistence of Audre Lorde demanding that we look, listen, celebrate and change.” – Pamela Sneed, Imagine Being More Afraid of Freedom Than Slavery

Photo Credit: Nye’ Lyn Tho

About The Poet
Arisa White is a Cave Canem fellow, Sarah Lawrence College alumna, an MFA graduate from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and author of the poetry chapbooks Disposition for Shininess, Post Pardon, and Black Pearl. She was selected by the San Francisco Bay Guardian for the 2010 Hot Pink List and is a member of the PlayGround writers’ pool; her play Frigidare was staged for the 15th Annual Best of Play Ground Festival. Recipient of the inaugural Rose O’Neill Literary House summer residency at Washington College in Maryland, Arisa has also received residencies, fellowships, or scholarships from Juniper Summer Writing Institute, Headlands Center for the Arts, Port Townsend Writers’ Conference, Squaw Valley Community of Writers, Hedgebrook, Atlantic Center for the Arts, Prague Summer Program, Fine Arts Work Center, and Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. Nominated for Pushcart Prizes in 2005 and 2014, her poetry has been published widely and is featured on the recording WORD with the Jessica Jones Quartet.


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  1. Thanks so much for being on the blog tour for this one. I'm looking forward to your review of this collection.

  2. I always love to hear about authors' writing processes - if for no other reason than to see how they are all so very different.

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